What is Philip Roth ’54 really like? A longtime Bucknell friend reveals a little-known — and surprising — side of the great novelist.
"We didn’t understand one damn word of that play,” Philip says. “We just stood on the stage and mouthed the syllables.” He laughs his great young laugh, throwing back his head and putting his whole body into it, the same laugh he had 62 years ago. We are at the unfashionable Greek restaurant on East 86th Street where we often meet for dinner. Philip complains that the entranceway smells of mold, but the fish is pretty good, the place is quiet and nobody ever recognizes him. He hands me the Dramatists Play Service paperback — the actor’s text — of The Madwoman of Chaillot, by Jean Giraudoux. We’d co-starred in the play in fall 1952 at Bucknell. I was the Madwoman. Philip was the Ragpicker. We got rave reviews.
At dinner, Philip makes me promise to study my part and says he will do the same. When we meet again two weeks later, we read our big scene. He isn’t satisfied with either of us. “We’re going to keep rehearsing this until we get it right.” He says it jokingly, but I know Philip Roth is a perfectionist. Maybe that’s why he announced in 2012 that he had stopped writing; maybe his sentences weren’t turning out as perfectly as he wanted.
Philip and I have been friends for 62 years. Imagine. No sex, just friends. “How are you, my sweet girl?” he asks me when we speak on the phone. “I’m fine, my sweet boy,” I tell him. (When exchanged by octogenarians like us, these are sweetly ironic pet names.) Is this the same person whose writing has been so controversial for half a century?
Last year, a film crew came to interview me for a television documentary on Philip. The executive producer, an attractive woman, posed the questions on camera. I described the man I know: compassionate, gentle, vulnerable, caring. After a few minutes, the interviewer began to frown; clearly, this was not what she expected. We continued in this vein until she threw down her pen and stopped the filming. “He is not Saint Philip, you know,” she said icily. “Can’t you talk about his dark side?” I had to confess I didn’t know about it.
Bucknell University in the 1950s was an idyll out of a Judy Garland-Mickey Rooney movie. Picture red brick buildings covered with ivy and a library with a white steeple where the carillon bell chimed the quarter hours. The men’s dormitories were at the top of the hill; bobby-soxed coeds were segregated in the former “Women’s Seminary” down at the bottom, where formidable housemothers guarded our chastity. Freshman women had to be home by 8 p.m.; once we were sophomores, we could stay out until 11. One night a year — Prom Night — we had “Late Permissions” until midnight. Men were not allowed above the first floor of any women’s dormitory. Not even fathers. And from this citadel of sexual repression came Philip Roth and Portnoy’s Complaint?
Philip says his three years at Bucknell were formative ones, and he has stayed in touch with his alma mater. He remained close to his favorite professor, Mildred Martin, and returned to campus before her death to give a special reading of Patrimony in her honor at Bucknell Hall. He talks regularly with another old friend, professor emeritus Jack Wheatcroft ’49. He invited President John Bravman to the Newark Public Library exhibit and celebration in honor of his 80th birthday, and John was delighted to attend. Since the Philip Roth Residence in Creative Writing was founded at Bucknell in 1993, Philip has personally reviewed the portfolios of the fiction-writer finalists to select the winner, making the award quite an honor for a young writer.
The first time I became aware of Philip was in fall 1951: I was a junior; he was a sophomore, a transfer student from the Newark campus of Rutgers. We were both taking Literary Criticism, and the professor had asked us to write a brief essay on Thomas Mann’s short story “Mario and the Magician.” Dr. Smith announced: “Mr. Roth has written a fine critique, and I have asked him to read it to you.” I don’t remember what Philip wrote. I remember being amazed at the depths he had discovered in that story (unseen by me), and the graceful way he expressed them. Recently I reminded Philip about this. “I reread ‘Mario and the Magician’ every year,” he told me. “It’s the perfect short story.”
Philip made his first appearance on the Bucknell stage as the only sinister character in the musical The Student Prince, which I was co-directing. It was a small, non-singing role Philip tried out for because he would not have to attend rehearsals every night and could have time for his studies. He played the nasty tutor who summons the prince away from his romance and back to his duties. Philip had to close a gate behind the sad young man as he departed. “The gate should close with a clang of finality,” he told me. I suggested that he simply bang it shut. Philip persisted. We consulted the stage manager, who brought in the electrician, who arranged an ominous CLANG. Philip was content.
Philip and two classmates took over the reins of the campus humor magazine, et cetera, and turned it into a literary magazine modeled on The New Yorker. For one of the first issues, Philip wrote a wickedly funny satire of the weekly college newspaper, edited by my friend Barbara Roemer ’53, a popular Tri Delt who was also captain of the cheerleading squad. Barbara wept when she saw the magazine, and Philip was hauled before the Dean of Men to be lectured about tradition and the Bucknell spirit. He rushed to Professor Martin for comfort; she told him that any satirist in America would always be subject to criticism.
Philip was, briefly, a fraternity man. He joined Sigma Alpha Mu, known as Sammy. The Sammies were responsible for the most notorious and best-attended fraternity event of the year: the “Sandblast,” always held in the dead of winter. They removed all the furniture from the ground floor of their house, hauled in tons of sand, and scattered beach blankets. It was the only possible way, at Bucknell in the 1950s, to get a coed legally prone. In the presence of chaperones, at that. I remember that Philip invited a Kappa Delta sorority sister of mine, a voluptuous young woman, as his date for one Sandblast. (The two-piece bathing suits then in style revealed very little breast and about one erotic inch of midriff. But it was enough.)
Philip deactivated from Sigma Alpha Mu after less than a year, complaining that the brothers had to eat sand in their mashed potatoes for months after the Sandblast. I suspect he simply wanted time for more important things.
In my senior year, Philip began the first serious romance of his life. Betty Powell ’54 was very pretty; witty, often sardonic, yet with a kindness that shone through. She was free-thinking, in a way that wasn’t characteristic of young ladies at Bucknell in that era. Betty was also very bright, the darling of the psychology department professors, who predicted a great academic future for her. My boyfriend at the time, a drama major, was a friend of Philip’s and the four of us would sometimes go to a movie together or hang out at Chet’s, the campus coffeehouse. I thought Betty was the last word in sophistication. Her parents were divorced; she chain smoked and drank martinis.
To top it all off, Betty lived in French House. Its original purpose was to provide a place where women majoring in French could live and converse. I never heard a word of French spoken there. Instead, it attracted independent-minded coeds like Betty. French House had a housemother, of course, but she was only 23, French and flirtatious, so curfew was a bit lax. A lot of what we then called “necking” went on in the living room, but Mademoiselle Genevieve was strict about sex.
Philip says it was almost impossible to find any privacy for making love on the Bucknell campus. He and Betty barricaded themselves into a dormitory laundry room and lay on the cold floor. They babysat for young faculty couples and used their beds. In his senior year, Philip took a room in town, a room with a rear window where he could sneak Betty in and out. That spring, Betty thought she was pregnant. (This was 1954; Roe v. Wade was in the future; abortions were illegal, expensive, difficult to obtain and dangerous.) Weeks went by, and Philip and Betty talked seriously about getting married. They would stay at Bucknell, get their master’s degrees, have their child and live in the ugly pre-fab housing allocated to married students. Then Betty got her period. They went their separate ways to graduate studies, and their separate ways after that. Philip has been married and divorced twice and has no children. Betty married, had no children, and died at 45. It was the cigarettes in the end.
Betty Powell keeps reappearing in Philip’s work, both early and late. I wonder if it was coincidence that he gave her initials to Brenda Patimkin, the heroine of his first novella, Goodbye Columbus. And I see a lot of Betty’s sweetness and vulnerability in Marcia, one of the most tender of all the Roth women, in his last book, Nemesis, the last book he will ever write. Marcia and Bucky, the protagonist, are both counselors at a summer camp just as Philip and Betty were in the Poconos, the summer between their junior and senior year. They paddle a canoe out to an island in the lake to be alone together under the trees, just as Philip and Betty did that summer of 1953.
“If Betty had been pregnant, I would have married her,” Philip told me recently. “We probably would have been happy. And just think: There would be a man or a woman on this earth, a person 58 years old, who would be my son or daughter.”
My sweet boy sounded wistful.
Jane Brown Maas ’53, a longtime advertising executive, has written six books. The most recent, The Christmas Angel, is reviewed on p.16 of the Fall 2013 issue of Bucknell Magazine.